I was at the supermarket the other day and was faced with a zillion people at the checkout counter. I decided to play my mildly creepy game of looking at other peoples shopping carts and trying to imagine what their lives must be like.
After scanning a dozen carts, I realised that apart from the essentials and impulse buys, almost all had one thing in common. Bags of rice and atta for the month and a big bag of a lentil, maybe two different lentils. That got me wondering… ‘That much of one single lentil for the month? Do they really eat the same dal every day? Do most Indian families eat the same dal every day, twice a day?’ I know I sounded like an ignoramus but i had to know. I started talking to friends and family and my suspicions were true. Most had the same standard dal for all meals, day after day except maybe for Sunday meals or on special occasions or at dinner parties. Other lentils and pulses were used maybe as sprouts or ground into flours or batters to make the occasional dosa, halwa, puran poli, fried snacks etc.
For example, a friend of mine cooks the exact same khatti meethi dal whenever she makes dal. Just like her mom did for her and her two sisters. In fact, now that all the girls are married, the khatti meethi dal has followed them into their kitchens as well. After my father’s sister got married, she used to visit her maternal home as often as she could. My grandmother was naturally concerned and asked if everything was alright between the couple. Sheepishly, my aunt moaned about the fact that she needed a break from eating the same yellow moong dal fry at every single meal!
It boggles my mind because I come from a family where every meal has a different dal on the table. The gujarati sweet dal with boiled peanuts, the sweetish, plain lachko dal, the maharastrian ambat varan, the drumstick amti with goda masala, the leeli moong ni dal, the south indian sambar, the palak moong dal and the list goes on. The fare is simple, healthy and economical but always varied. And if there is no dal, then there is definitely a curried pulse to stand in for it. It may be a rassawala moong, rassawali mutki or a chola ni dal, a rajma dal or a kaley vatanyechi amti.
I love dals and pulses for the powerhouse nutrients and protein they provide and the infinite ways in which you can use them. Kitchens that still follow traditional, vegetarian cooking still do some justice to lentils. The Daily Dal in my opinion is an underestimated dish and I really feel sorry for it. Especially in non-vegetarian households in India. Though they epitomise comfort food for many an Indian palate, I feel they generally tend to be taken for granted rather than celebrated. Don’t get me wrong. The assorted lentils like arhar, masoor, moong, chana etc do not in any way lack in versatility and imagination, in addition to being economical and nutritious. They are used cleverly and imaginatively in wet and dry forms across India in hundreds of recipes in soups, dals, batters, chutneys, flours, flat breads, with leafy vegetables and meats, as desserts… The list is endless.
My grouse is with our indifferent attitude towards the Daily Dal. Indian cuisine has dozens of variations from every region, for every lentil. For a busy lifestyle, maybe new innovations in subzis or non-vegetarian curries may be a little time consuming on a daily basis. But a little change in your powdered spices, a twist in the tempering on a plain, boiled dal is all it takes to put up a quick and exciting variation of a dinner table staple every day.
So try your hand at your colleagues laal chawli amti recipe or the dahiwali masoor dal made at the neighbourhood Great Punjab dhaba. Innovate, experiment, and embrace the fact that dals are one of the best things about Indian cuisine and make your daily meals that much more exciting.